When I first heard that K.P. Hong would lose his job at Macalester at the end of this academic year, I couldn’t hold back the tears. Normally I would have felt foolish crying publicly, but sitting on my meditation cushion I knew better than to fight it. Even in my initial shock I was aware that an open, vulnerable response was only appropriate for K.P. Hong.
In an environment that values academic success, criticism and analysis, empowerment and ambition, K.P. was the person who taught me that compassion means hearing and exploring our emotions and letting other people see our unadorned “selves.” He is the person I go to when I am sad, when things in my life don’t make sense, and when I have emotional or ethical dilemmas. He is the strongest support I have at Macalester: when I confide in my family and friends about problems in my life they listen for a while and then say “have you talked to K.P. yet?” I know many other students see him this way, and that several would not have made it this far in their college careers without him as a guide, counselor, teacher and friend.
Though most of my tears poured out in the chapel and below in the CRSL basement that first afternoon, crying was just the beginning of my response. The next few days I walked around campus with a broken heart, devastated at the thought that the most generous, wise, and supportive person I have ever known—someone who gives without fail to anyone who needs him—could now be let down so completely by this institution. More than for K.P., I mourned for the school itself—for the legacy of Macalester and for the underclassmen who would soon lose a source of stability, insight and unique inspiration.
Initially, I was not just sad but also angry. I wrote to the administration that letting K.P. go was a clear symbol of their distorted values. “You are hurting the Macalester community and student body, and taking away the part this school I have always been most grateful for,” I said in an email. I added that I didn’t care about fancy buildings and the college’s statistics. I wrote that we don’t need all the perks of this school (free popcorn, numerous often poorly attended talks), and that as a student I would be willing to sacrifice some of the privileges I have—but not those that affect my emotional and spiritual well-being.
As for action, I wrote this: “As a current student nearing graduation, there is not much I can threaten at the moment. However I have not forgotten President Brian Rosenberg’s article on gun control in the Huffington Post, and I can promise that I will never give this school another penny of my money if our administration will not use it to fund the things that matter.”
In the time since then, my view of the situation has become more nuanced. My conversations with members of the administration have made it clear that no one is happy about the prospect of losing K.P. I have learned that the seemingly perverse decision to fund several large-scale building projects at a time when students are in danger of losing essential faculty, staff and programing, is not entirely under the administration’s jurisdiction. The fact is that many of our donors are more interested in putting their names on buildings than they are in funding endowed positions, individual departments, or even financial aid. This is a discouraging reality, but it is not a stopping place.
The more I come to understand Macalester’s budgeting and politics, the less I see a clear target for my anger over this issue. I realize that withholding money or support from the school is not the most effective way of effecting change. However, as a friend puts it, having compassion for the administration cannot mean being complacent about advocating for ourselves. I still feel strongly that if Macalester’s budget cannot support K.P.’s position, it is a symptom of a broken system of communication between the groups that make up this institution (students, administration, donors, alumni). I still think that we need to make our voices heard, and air all the pain and frustration that comes from having a lifeline cut. We need to make it clear to the wider Macalester community that we, the students, want a say in the priorities of the college we pay so much to attend. This school is and should continue to be more than its buildings, statistics, advertising materials and the number of lectures listed on our events calendar. Its greatness cannot be measured by how much free food we can score in a day or by how much muscle mass our athletes can build in the gym. Macalester is special because of the people, ideas, and experiences that flourish here.
As I struggle with this situation, I sometimes feel impotent; but I am happy to say that I think that the disillusionment many of us feel with Macalester at this moment is also a reflection of positive beliefs and aspirations for the school. If I am angry and hurt it is because I am so incredibly grateful for the gifts that K.P. Hong has showed me, and cannot imagine my experience without them. As a senior about to leave this campus, I want Macalester to continue benefiting from his lessons, wisdom and guidance. Whether you know K.P. Hong as a teacher, friend, religious leader, counselor—or even just from a convocation prayer—I hope that you will lend your support for the work he does. And no matter your relationship with K.P., I ask you all to think about what Macalester means to you and what you want it to be.